2012-10-05

Soaring through the stratosphere

The highest point on Earth is the summit of Mount Everest [wikipedia] at 8848 meters (29029 ft). The average cruising altitude of a commercial jet airplane is about a thousand meters higher at around 10000 m (≈33000 ft). On Monday, October 8th1 Tuesday, October 9th2 a date still to be determined3 Sunday, October 14th, Felix Baumgartner will step out of a specially designed capsule and freefall from over 37000 m (over 121000 ft). During his "Red Bull Stratos" jump, Felix will break quite a few records, including becoming the first person to pass the speed of sound (≈1200 km/hr) on a skydive.

In addition to the obvious awesome-factor, this event will hopefully aide in the advancement of space exploration. Felix will be wearing a "next generation" pressure suit, which might be useful to astronauts in future travels beyond our small planetary home. The detail of scientific data Felix's capsule and suit will gather will be helpful in the study of the atmosphere, spacecraft design, and the effects of such a "fall" on the human body.

As explained in this video [Red Bull Stratos], the whole event will be broadcast live by the Red Bull Stratos team in Roswell, New Mexico via 35 cameras. My appreciation of astronomy, high-adventure, and technology will certainly have me watching the broadcast with excitement. The path of our progress as a species was started with the single step of one person, a single step taken beyond the trail already made and supported by the people who walk by their side.

1 2012-10-06@07:00:00 MDT UPDATE: Mission postponed to 9 Oct, due to weather concerns.
2 2012-10-09@11:45:00 MDT UPDATE: Mission aborted during launch preparations due to wind conditions.
3 2012-10-09@13:00:00 MDT UPDATE: Next weather window appears to be 14 Oct.

2012-06-28

Getting a full slice of pie

Last year, I presented some information about the mathematical concept of "tau". Most importantly, I encouraged an educational focus toward the practical:
Keeping the students as the priority, certain "weird math" gets discarded. For example, did you know that a full pi radian angle is only 180°. If I were to use only pi to cut you a slice of pie that means you would only get half of what you asked for because a circle is really 2π. Using τ you would have access to the full 360°.
Today is again Tau Day and I would like to remind you to get that full slice of pie in your life. Use an open mind and the power of critical thinking to find the methods which expand your world-view.

As I've said in some fashion in other articles:
Never accept "because I said so"; find a better source, one which will help nurture your curiosity not belittle it. Explore the world around you, excite your mind with interest, accept the dynamic nature of "fact", and wonder at the beauty of information.
Vi has put together another fun video [YouTube] about Tau this year. As she says in the silly fun of her song:
"We get further from truth when we obscure what we say."
Tau is a simple and easy way to understand the math of circles. And, let's be honest, math is far to important to be overlooked because someone long ago decided to make it appear harder to conceptualize than it really is.

2012-06-20

A midsummer's hike

Ten minutes after this article publishes, the June solstice of 2012 will occur (2012-06-20@23:10 UTC). As written in my "Survive in extreme temperatures" article published at the last solstice (December):
During a solstice, the "tilt" of the Earth is at its greatest angle in relation to its orbit around the Sun.
For astronomers, today's solstice marks the start of Summer in the Northern hemisphere. As much as I love astronomy, I prefer to view the seasons as we do our days: When the Sun is at its peak during the day, we say it is midday. In the same way, when the Sun appears at its Northern most in the sky, it is midsummer.

This midsummer marks the start of my primary hiking season. In fact, by the time this (automatically) publishes, my girlfriend and I should be well on our way to the location of our hike. We are both avid hikers year-round, but I've found that I most enjoy tackling larger summits during the warmer months.

During this hike, I am hoping to try something new. I have a tendency to push myself to find and maintain a constant pace while hiking; essentially, forcing myself to march up mountains. This time, I'm going to experiment with strategically changing the pace based on incline.

If we encounter a flat area, I hope to push myself slightly beyond a comfortable pace. When we encounter an incline I hope to slow myself to a pace below my comfort. I'm curious to observe the results on my overall performance. My goal is to keep the focus on comfort, not time or destination.

I love finding new and exciting experiences throughout the world, but I sometimes find myself pushing physically so hard toward some goal that I ignore what I'm feeling about the experience of getting there. I certainly enjoy the external aspects of the experience (e.g. beautiful views, incredible company, wondrous wildlife). I hope that this new approach to my pace will help me to be mindful of the internal experience as well.

2012-06-18

Review: The Flinch

The Flinch by Julien Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Flinch was an entertaining and enriching book and I am glad to have read it. I really enjoyed the light, fast-paced, and fun style of Julien Smith.

I have touched on the subject of fear in my blog and I had planned to circle back again to it again. The Flinch gave me some new inspiration, physiological experiments, and a different perspective for a familiar topic.

I enjoyed the book enough to devour its entire contents in one sitting. I like to imagine that Smith had originally written more, taking us further beyond the comfort of everyday, but the editors simply flinched.

View all my reviews

Review: The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have had a few financial struggles in my life, but I've learned some fantastic lessons from those challenging experiences. Dave Ramsey's book is a decent compilation of advice for those people who haven't yet learned those lessons for themselves.

Perhaps my view of The Total Money Makeover is the same as my view of any other "makeover". I don't think any "makeover" is really necessary, it suggests that a person is incapable of changing themselves without some external enhancements. In this case, the financial advice is great, but it's the knowledge that gives you the power. It's not the "stylist" that makes your hair or makeup great, it's you. Learn (without buying anything) how to do something, then do it.

View all my reviews

2012-06-14

How to estimate wind speed and direction

Today is Flag Day in the United States of America. Many countries have these "Flag Day" public holidays, during which the adoption of the national flag or a specific event is recognized. Flags can be found, in some form, throughout history, but their usefulness extends beyond identification, patriotism, and decoration. How? Well, the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Source: "Palace of the Four Winds" - Wikipedia

It's easy to become so accustomed to our environment that we miss the nuanced information we can collect from it. I previously presented how to predict the weather using observations of your environment in my Survival Guide Series. Today, I would like to detail how you can use similar awareness to discern wind speed and direction, another useful survival skill.

There have been a small collection of measurement systems for estimating wind speed, effects, and direction developed throughout history; one of which is the Beaufort wind force scale [Wikipedia]. Initially used to qualitatively evaluate wind effects, the Beaufort scale was eventually made into a more useful measure of wind conditions.

The Wikipedia article on the Beaufort scale has a wonderfully comprehensive table of the measures and effects of wind at each stage of the scale. I’ve chosen to select specific qualities and quantities from that table to ease memorization. For example, you’ll find that I list specific easy-to-remember speeds approximately within each Beaufort scale, rather than just throw a bunch of data at you. After all, my goal with this article is to make this information easy for you to use without technology or calculation. I want to empower you to look at the world around you and instantly discern the information you desire.

I’ve divided my groupings into three types of observations: flags, land, and sea. The effects described for the flag, are based on a common midsize flag (2:3 ratio, about 1 m ≈ 3 ft on its shortest side). For land, I made sure to include observations of the trees; do keep in mind that other factors can also affect tree movement, such as weather and fauna (e.g. rain may make leaves move, snow may hinder branch motion, squirrels may shake small branches).
CALM
Beaufort 0 - Less than 2 km/h (≈ 1.25 mi/hr)
Flag: Flag is at rest.
Land: Smoke rises gradually straight up, with very little drifting.
Sea: The water’s surface will appear smooth and reflections will be clearly recognizable.
LIGHT AIR
Beaufort 1 - 5 km/h (≈ 3 mi/hr)
Flag: Flag moves slightly in the wind, the bottom corner of the flag will hang.
Land: Smoke will drift with the wind.
Sea: The surface of the water will show some rippling.
LIGHT BREEZE
Beaufort 2 - 10 km/h (≈ 6 mi/hr)
Flag: Flag extends in the wind, the top corner may flap and curl.
Land: Tree leaves begin to rustle.
Sea: Small waves begin forming. No curling or cresting.
GENTLE BREEZE
Beaufort 3 - 20 km/h (≈ 12 mi/hr)
Flag: Waves move across the fabric when the flag is extended in the wind.
Land: Leaves and small twigs will be constantly moving.
Sea: “Wavelets” form, crests begin to form and break.
MODERATE BREEZE
Beaufort 4 - 30 km/h (≈ 20 mi/hr)
Flag: Flag is in constant motion, flapping quickly in the wind.
Land: Small tree branches begin to move. Dust and debris will be carried by the wind.
Sea: Small waves (up to 1 m high) begin to make longer curls. Crests become more numerous and easily visible.
FRESH BREEZE
Beaufort 5 - 40 km/h (≈ 25 mi/hr)
Flag: Ripples move quickly across the fabric.
Land: Small trees with leaves will begin to sway.
Sea: Moderate waves (1-2 m high) form. Many crests are visible, some surface spray is carried by the wind.
STRONG BREEZE
Beaufort 6 - 50 km/h (≈ 30 mi/hr)
Flag: The flag will “snap” and “pop” as it waves, flaps, and ripples. Damage to the flag will begin to occur.
Land: Larger tree branches will begin moving.
Sea: Large waves (2-4 m high) form. More spray is carried in the wind.
NEAR GALE
Beaufort 7 - 60 km/h (≈ 35 mi/hr)
Flag: Flag will begin to tear, possibly detaching from its hoist.
Land: Large trees begin to move and sway. Most people will feel some resistance when walking against the wind.
Sea: The surface of the water begins to heave. Sea heaps up, waves about 5 meters in height will form. Crests will spread down the waves from where the wave breaks.
GALE
Beaufort 8 - 75 km/h (≈ 45 mi/hr)
Flag: What flag? If not already torn from its hoist, there will be little left of the flag to respond to the wind.
Land: Loose leaves and small twigs break free of tree branches. Most people will have difficulty standing and/or staying balanced in the wind.
Sea: Moderately high waves (5-7 m) form. Spray from crests drifts (aka “spindrift”) across the surface with the wind.
STRONG GALE
Beaufort 9 - 88 km/h (≈ 55 mi/hr)
Land: Large tree branches may break. Some damage to buildings.
Sea: High waves (7-10 m) form. The whole surface begins to roll. Foam streaks across the surface. Spray carried in the wind notably fills the air.
STORM
Beaufort 10 - 100 km/h (≈ 65 mi/hr)
Land: Tree trunks may break and/or whole trees will uproot. Significant damage to buildings. (Wind of this speed is a rare occurrence on land.)
Sea: Very high waves (10-12 m) with large crests. The surface is dense with foam and rolls deeply. Visibility is hindered more by spray in the air.
VIOLENT STORM
Beaufort 11 - 115 km/h (≈ 70 mi/hr)
Sea: Waves nearly 15 meters in height. The surface of the water is mostly foam.
HURRICANE
Beaufort 12 - Greater than 115 km/h (≈ 70 mi/hr)
Sea: The air is now filled with foam and spray. Waves are over 15 meters high and the surface of the water is completely white with foam and spray.
I know this list of observations seems long, but it can be fun to focus most on those qualities most commonly relevant to your daily life (Beaufort 2 - 8). In the days writing this article, I have found myself frequently looking out a window to observe, estimate, and check the wind speed.

It’s easy to miss the wonders of the world around us, if we don’t first make an effort to look for them. I hope that the information within these guides inspires your enjoyment of our planet and makes the external environment feel more personally relevant.

2012-06-06

Venus between us

The past month has been filled with wondrous astronomical viewing events: a lunar perigee, a solar eclipse (during the lunar apogee), a partial lunar eclipse, and yesterday's transit of Venus across the Sun. I've written about astronomy events in the past, such as the lunar perigee of March 2011 and the lunar eclipse of December 2011, so it should come as no surprise that I was thoroughly enjoying these recent events.

Sometimes the sky conditions at my location made viewing of an event less than ideal, but I have learned to make the viewing experience, not the sight itself, the focal point of my excitement. For example, during the recent solar eclipse, I put my focus on creating a fun and memorable experience for my daughter; hopefully, a life-lasting memory of the first time she watched a solar eclipse. We talked about what was happening, how it was happening, used different tools and techniques to safely observe the eclipse, and -- when the clouds rolled in -- we enjoyed the spectacle of a cloud's "golden" lining.

The planets of the solar system, including Earth, all orbit around the Sun. Sometimes the planets orbiting closer to the Sun than us pass directly in front of the Sun from our perspective here on Earth. Yesterday, a once-in-a-lifetime event took place when Venus passed through such a perspective. Many people again turned their eyes toward the skies -- hopefully, with proper eye-protection -- to watch our nearest neighbor move across our view of the Sun.

With a planet of 7 billion humans, I knew from the start that the event would be documented and shared [NASA + YouTube] by many. So, I enriched my experience of this event, making it unique and memorable in my own way. I borrowed a friend's welding mask -- making sure it was an appropriate shade rating -- to watch the transit of Venus. At times, clouds blocked my view of the Sun, but I had my computer close at hand with a Universe Today live webcast of views from areas where the sky was clear. As the Sun set, ending the viewing for my area, I took a special photo of the Sun (and Venus) as they set nearby Horsetooth Rock (a local landmark).

Photo taken by Indy in Fort Collins, Colorado.

There will be many more astronomical events throughout my lifetime, but it will not be until 2117 that Venus will again pass directly between Earth and the Sun. Personally, I am happy that I have been able to make these recent experiences fun and memorable for myself and those closest to me. Life is full of opportunity, some we take and some we miss. Like the "golden lining" of the cloud that my daughter and I marveled at during the solar eclipse, it's how you embrace an experience that defines your memory of it.

2012-06-03

Reapplying the sunscreen

My recent article about sunscreen contained a lot information on the light spectrum of the Sun and what radiation reaches the surface of our planet. The last bits of my article were dedicated to the choice and application of sunscreen. Those last bits were inspired by a graphic ["The Sunscreen Smokescreen" - Information is Beautiful] I encountered last Summer on one of my favorite data visualization blogs.

Like my blog, the graphic contains a lot of data, but it's an abundance of sunscreen data whereas my blog spent more time on light spectrum. So, if you want to "reapply" more sunscreen knowledge to your brain, check out the graphic below:

Source: "The Sunscreen Smokescreen" - Information is Beautiful

2012-06-02

Review: The Grand Design

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is another in a line of greats from Stephen Hawking. My first audio-book was Hawking's A Brief History of Time. So, in a way, it is fitting that my first eBook was a Hawking book as well.

The Grand Design was a wonderful journey through the world of astrophysics. I already had a reasonable understanding of the topics presenting in the book, but I quite enjoyed having everything so eloquently assembled.

View all my reviews

2012-05-29

In the United States, we recently took pause on Memorial Day [Wikipedia] to recognize and remember the men and women of service who have given their lives and life’s work to preserve the lives or life-work of others. For many, Memorial Day also marks the typical start of the Summer vacation season. The increase in outdoor activity, coupled with the longer Summer day-lengths [“Survival Guide: Tell time using the Sun or Moon” - INDY Blog], means more time under that bright ball of fusion: the Sun.

There’s a lot of energy radiating from all that solar activity; most of that energy is wonderfully beneficial, bringing light and sustenance to our world, but some of that energy can also be rather harmful. Today, I’m going to discuss both the costs and the benefits, so that you’re better prepared to embrace the Summer months.

First, let’s talk about the energy coming from our star, the Sun [“Sunlight” - Wikipedia]. The large majority of the solar spectrum is in the range of radio waves, infrared, and visible light. The remaining bit is made up of ultraviolet and X-rays.

Source: "Solar Spectrum" - Wikipedia

As I said, radio waves, infrared, and visible light are very common, in fact, you see visible light every day! The wavelengths of these particles are long enough that they are harmless, except to the most sensitive of receptors (e.g. your eyes). It’s really the high-energy short-wavelength radiation which we need to be concerned about, so let’s take a look at those types now.

You may have heard of Gamma rays, that highly energetic form of electromagnetic radiation which can ionize atoms and, therefore, cause damage to biological organisms at the cellular level. Scary stuff, right? Well, lucky for us, the Gamma rays generated by our star’s solar fusion are processed into lower energy radiation before they even reach the surface of the Sun. Even so, other phenomena do generate Gamma rays, but typical exposure is extremely rare and in miniscule doses. Better still, our atmosphere does an excellent job of absorbing and reflecting these and other high-energy particles, such as X-rays.

Let’s take a look at what is left in our spectrum of sunlight: ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation falls between the spectrum of visible light and X-rays, hence the name “ultra-violet” “extreme violet”. UV light is categorized into three types: UVA, UVB, and UVC. For the purposes of this article, let’s discard UVC (as that’s what our atmosphere literally does for us, it allows very little UVC to reach the surface of Earth). Instead, we’ll focus on how the remaining two types of ultraviolet light affect us on the cellular level; more specifically how they affect our skin.

All forms of UV light can damage and age the skin and cause cancer. Higher frequency UV radiation (e.g. UVB and UVC) can directly damage the DNA in our cells, causing mutations we call cancer. UVA indirectly causes DNA damage by exciting cells deeper within the body. Those cells may not be mutated, but they sure do misbehave in their excited state. However, you shouldn’t hurry to cancel your Summer vacation plans and shutter yourself into darkness. These same types of UV radiation play essential roles in our body’s natural processes.

That same skin-penetrating UVB triggers the synthesis of Vitamin D in our bodies. Vitamin D helps in the regulation of metabolism. Meaning, Vitamin D -- and other sun-generated vitamins and hormones -- are part of the process that tells your body whether to use the food energy (calories) you’ve consumed, store that energy for later (fat), and when your body should decrease its overall energy use (sleep). Some psychiatrists theorize that Vitamin D and serotonin influence mood and disposition. [“Seasonal affective disorder” - Wikipedia]

As with many things in life, we strive to find balance. Sunlight is “the only listed carcinogen that is known to have health benefits” [“Risks and benefits of sun exposure” - Wikipedia]. How can we minimize the risk of harm while receiving helpful benefits of the Sun’s light? This is where human technology and intelligence come in!

Sun protection has improved significantly since its invention. Sunscreen, in its most current form, can better withstand environmental conditions (e.g. temperature, moisture, etc.) and provide a better Sun Protection Factor (SPF). SPF, we find those numbers on bottles of sunscreen almost everywhere, but what do they mean?

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of protection offered by the sunscreen against UVB, which can cause sunburn. The true effectiveness of sunscreen depends greatly on a combination of factors: skin tone, amount of sunscreen applied (and re-applied), and the amount of sunscreen lost (absorbed into the skin or loosed from it by the environment and activity).

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT SPF RATING FOR YOU
STEP 1: Determine your skin tone and “time multiplier”. Would you consider your skin tone light (10 minutes), intermediate (15 minutes), or dark (20 minutes)?
STEP 2: Multiply the SPF rating by the time multiplier found in STEP 1.
(SPF rating) x time multiplier
STEP 3: The result is the estimated time (in minutes) your skin will be protected from UVB.
Keep in mind that most people have the tendency to only apply half as much sunscreen as they should. So, you may wish to compensate for this by dividing your result by 2 or 3. Also, cloud cover can decrease your exposure to UV light, but it won’t eliminate it entirely. Additionally, reflective surfaces may increase your exposure (since you’ll get it from multiple directions). Finally, you’ll recall that wonderful atmosphere I discussed earlier, protecting us from some of those high-energy rays? Well, the higher your altitude, the less atmosphere there is protecting you.

The most important thing to remember in all of this is that it is up to you to protect yourself from harm. Remember what I said, all forms of UV can cause cancer. Be careful not to overindulge to the point where you take your skin from one extreme to the other. Meaning, if you have naturally light skin tone, you should avoid altering your skin to the point where its tone would be considered dark. The amount of aging and radiation that it would have to undergo to reach that level of melatonin would be rather unhealthy. Find the right balance and keep yourself safe and healthy.

2012-04-09

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The world around us is so full of life and character. Anne Rice has a natural ability to capture this character in the pages of her books. The Wolf Gift is no exception in its artistry, but it is exceptional in its new-telling of old legends.

It has been years since I've been consumed so completely by a book. I was captivated by The Wolf Gift, drawn into the story by Rice's talent to describe the experiences of her characters, not through detached scenic description, but with intense personal sensation.

I loved the tapestry of elegant vampire lore woven by Rice in her Vampire Chronicles and I am even more enamored with her brilliant journey into the world of lycanthropy in The Wolf Gift.

View all my reviews

2012-03-14

Remember, Pi is a lie!

Happy Half Tau Day!

Remember, Pi is a lie and Tau is twice the fun!

As you go about your mathematically similar day, read up on the origins and uses of Pi and Tau in those previous articles.

2012-03-09

Goofy physics

Source: "Goofy" - Wikipedia

For years, I've pondered a question presented by Goofy in the film "A Goofy Movie" [IMDB]:
"How many cups of sugar does it take to get to the Moon?"
Having just watching the film with my kids tonight, I decided to finally calculate the answer.
Disregarding the effects of atmospheric drag and the gravity of the Sun, I can focus solely on the physics involving the gravity of the Earth and Moon ["Escape velocity" - Wikipedia]:
- A "cup of sugar" has the potential to release 3.18 MJ of energy
- The velocity required to break free of Earth (VeE) is 11.2 km/s
- The velocity gained by an object falling to the Moon (VeM) is 2.4 km/s
- My mass (Mi) is approximately 77 kg 1
Using an understanding of (simplified) rocket science [minutephysics - YouTube], we can learn the basic equation needed to calculate how much energy is needed to travel to the Moon:
Energy in Joules = (.5*Mi)*((VeE)²-(VeM)²)
(38.5)*(11.2²-2.4²) = 4.61x109 J = 4610 MJ
Now we know that I, as some sort of bizarre human-rocket, would need 4610 MJ of energy to travel to the Moon. We already found that 3.18 MJ of energy is in each cup of sugar.
4610 MJ / 3.18 MJ = 1450
This means that it would require the energy of 1450 cups of sugar for me to travel to the Moon. Don't worry, the hard part will be figuring out how I can fly.

1 As a point of reference, the Saturn V rocket which launched Apollo 11 was 3,039,000 kg [Saturn V - Wikipedia].

2012-03-08

Connected to the Universe

URL: https://vimeo.com/38101676

When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson [Wikipedia] was asked by a TIME magazine reader "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?", Tyson responded with a beautiful observation of the connectivity of the Universe. Tyson said, "When I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us." [Full transcript - Lybio.net]

When I first heard Tyson's words, I smiled because I too feel a strong connectivity with the universe. When I wander the mountainside, swim in the ocean, or gaze at the night sky, I don't feel insignificant or fear the certainty of death; I feel peace. As I observe the wonders within the universe, it is the feeling of awe, coupled with an insatiable curiosity, that fuels my search for further understanding and exploration.

2012-03-06

2012 Primaries election results

Today is Super Tuesday, a Spring day when most primary elections are held in an election year. Due to high demand during the last presidential election, I published an article showing regularly updated primary election results on a Google Spreadsheet.

As the current election rolls along in 2012, my statistics again indicate that election results are being sought after on the INDY Blog. So, on the biggest election day of the Spring, I present you with a Google Spreadsheet for the...
2012 Republican Primaries
Similar to the previous spreadsheets, you can find the winners for each type of vote, whether by popular vote, delegate, or "superdelegate" (aka high-ranking party member). I will update these results as I'm able and from a smattering of sources, from "both sides of the fence". (I'm trying to relay election results, not spin them.)

2012-02-21

New INDY landing page

Seven and a half years ago, the INDY.CC website was released. Throughout those years, the site has had many transformations [Internet Archive]. I've tried to keep the format, layout, and appearance of the site updated to stay aligned with the progression of technology and ascetics.

As of this posting, you'll find that the website has a new landing page. This is the page first seen when going directly to INDY.CC. Previously, this page had contained a detailed overview of the site's purpose and main attractions. It also contained helped redirection for those people who may have come to the site by mistake.

Now, the internet has become a place of social connection and flowing information, more so than a place of independent islands connected by search engines. As such, I've made the INDY landing page into a simple, but elegant presentation of myself, my website, and the many public connections and services of which I am a part of.

2012-02-15

The Wolf Festival

What's black, white, and red all over?
If it's two goats and a dog, then the answer is "The Wolf Festival", the ancient tradition which gave way to Valentine's Day. ["Lupercalia" - Wikipedia]

Mid-February is Lupercalia, the Wolf Festival, an ancient Roman festival of purification and fertility. During the festival, the Luperci -- the "brothers of the wolf" -- would sacrifice two male goats and a dog. They would then smear the blood of that sacrifice on the faces of new initiates into the Luperci. The initiates would then cut lashes of goat flesh and run through the city. Young women would present themselves along their route in order to be whipped by these lashes, which tradition held would ensure fertility.

Eventually, Lupercalia was banned (along with other out-of-fashion rituals) by Pope Gelasius, but we'll come back to that. Before we move forward into what Lupercalia became (spoiler: Valentine's Day), let's learn about where it may have had its origins.

Legend has it that Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, suckled as infants by a she-wolf. Much of Roman culture was of Greek origin, Lupercalia is no exception. The Luperci formed in honor of this she-wolf (lupa) and Lupercalia was born atop the rituals of a Greek festival of wolf lore called "Lykaia" [Wikipedia]1.

Back to the future, Christianity eventually became the popular religion, so public displays of the old religions were banned. Many of the festivals and holidays of antiquity were replaced with new Christian equivalents. Winter solstice became Christmas. Spring equinox was replaced by Easter. Harvest festivals, celebrated with the cornucopia of Zeus or the wheat of Ceres, gave way to All Saints Day (and its All Saints Eve, aka Halloween).

When you're supplanting traditions with a multitude of deities and demigods with monotheistic beliefs, it is -- by definition -- easy to get out-numbered. That is, until you throw in your own versions of the divine on Earth: saints. So, Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day, in recognition of a few early Christians (name Valentine) who were martyred for their then-unpopular beliefs.

Valentine's Day (and the other "new" holidays) anchored well into society and was largely untouched for almost a thousand years, at least until Chaucer put the spin of chivalry and courtly romance into it.
"For this was Seynt Valentyne's Day. When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."
The popularity of this idea spread faster than the brief second it actually takes for avian insemination, Valentine's Day became a day of courting and affection.

Over the centuries to follow, Valentine's Day went through a slow metamorphosis into something "new": a ritual of fertility. Now, at the least, I hope that ritual doesn't involve the bloody flesh of a goat. Please let me remain blissfully ignorant, if that is not the case.

1 The Lykaia festival of ancient Greece is part of the legendary heritage of the origin of werewolves. I'm sure it was no coincidence that Anne Rice released her newest novel "The Wolf Gift" yesterday during Lupercalia.

2012-02-14

Today, many people in the Western world will participate in various traditions related to Valentine's Day [Wikipedia]. Civilizations have transformed the traditions and history of the festival since antiquity. (More on that metamorphosis tomorrow.) However, there is something which hasn't changed in its ties to traditions of fellowship: the kiss.

Kissing has been a human expression for as long as there have been humans to express it. A kiss can embody the beginning of an agreement (e.g. contracts, significant settlements, marriage, etc.) and sometimes even the end of a fellowship (e.g. the kiss of death, a kiss goodbye, etc.). The kiss is an act which stimulates a physiological response, it engages the senses into an acute awareness and the body into a singular focus on what is happening. ["Kiss" - Wikipedia]

When kissing, our bodies use roughly 150 muscles to coördinate the action. Our bodies release a flood of hormones, such as endorphin and adrenaline, into our bloodstream; our brain senses this and we feel a "rush" and "butterflies in our stomachs". As a result, our perception of stress and anxiety decreases, our memory is more detailed, and our body goes into a state of excitement (e.g. increased heart rate, dilated pupils, increased oxygen intake). Basically, kissing triggers our bodies into a natural high.

It's fascinating to consider the magnificence of the human body. For many people who choose to recognize the traditions of what is now Valentine's Day, the holiday can be about paying attention to the people held dear to us in our daily lives. Over eons of evolution, humans have developed the ability to give one of the greatest gift to show our affection: the kiss.

2012-02-02

Groundhog Day 2012

"Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cold out there today." -- Radio DJ, Groundhog Day
Today is Groundhog Day! My favorite holiday's favorite rodent prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow and foretold six more weeks of Winter. If you've been a long-time reader, you'll remember a previous Groundhog Day article in which I explained the significance of cross-quarter days. While Phil may tell us that Winter will stick around until the equinox this year, we know that today really is the seasonal (not astronomical) start of Spring.

Having recently written an article on "Silly Superstition", you may find it odd that I enjoy the foolhardy festivities of Groundhog Day. However, as I said in that in that very same article, "so long as we recognize a superstition as silliness and not seriousness, we can continue on a path toward understanding".

So, in my usual practice of Groundhog Day reflections, I hope to look forward to these next seasons with a smile. Embrace the fun and adventure of each day and strive not to take things too seriously. Otherwise, some may find themselves caught in an infinite time-loop of Winter until Punxsutawney Phil is satisfied that they've "chilled out".

Perhaps C.G.P. Grey explains things better in his YouTube about Groundhog Day:

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

2012-01-13

Silly Superstition

It is now 11:11 on Friday the 13th. Does that mean good luck or bad luck?

"Superstition" has existed since humans began asking questions about the Universe. Wikipedia defines superstition as "a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any process in the physical world linking the two events" ["Superstition" - Wikipedia]. I'll give the word a more blunt definition: A superstition is something someone chooses to fabricate when they don't actually know a real explanation.

One can imagine some distraught ancient farmer approaching the local sage to ask the sage about the failure of his crops. The sage is familiar with some successful local farmers and knows that they all have beards. So, the sage -- knowing nothing of farming -- tells the distraught farmer that it is his lack of facial hair causing the crops to fail.

The sage's explanation is, of course, a fallacy [Wikipedia]. "Correlation does not imply causation", however his answer is still accepted because the distraught farmer either has trust in the sage or knows no other explanation. The story (and our growth as a society) would have gone a completely different direction had the sage simply told the farmer, "I don't know. Ask one of the successful farmers."

Remember the warning in my article on "A Hierarchy to Understanding"?
If Wisdom is the culmination of experiential Knowledge, then finding the sources of that knowledge becomes an important exercise in understanding. All too often people will spread information without considering its source, truth, or purpose. In such a networked world, that is a very dangerous thing. If we wish to consume so much information, then I suggest that we become connoisseurs of it; carefully sampling each tidbit and weighing its value for further consumption.

Most people are able to overrule superstition with the proper application of rational thought, but some superstitions have become culturally ingrained crutches, making them emotionally addictive for the naïve and/or vulnerable. When some people find themselves asking questions with explanations still unknown or -- perhaps due to difficult life circumstances -- receive answers they are unwilling to accept, they choose to hold to the superstition and not acknowledge the alternative. Like drug addicts of the irrational, only through caring support can the most ardent of the superstitious be guided into a life of free thought.

It can be humorous to ominously joke about "knocking on wood". Even I enjoy the foolishness of something as silly as Groundhog Day. So long as we recognize a superstition as silliness and not seriousness, we can continue on a path toward understanding. However, it is important to also acknowledge that the fear felt by those who hold tightly to superstition is very real and it might be rooted in very delicate emotional states. Finding humor is a good way to positively influence society to see the silliness of superstition, but critical thinking (asking "Why?") is the best way to stop superstitions before they start.

So, back to my original question. Is it good luck or bad luck that this post was published at 11:11 on Friday the 13th? I choose to see it like this: it's almost midday on a Friday; that is a happy thought for me and superstition has nothing to do with it.